President Bush tried Wednesday to quell the conservative criticism engulfing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, his longtime adviser, and scolded special interest groups for exploiting the debate over the next Supreme Court justice to raise funds.
In his first news conference since Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement Friday, Bush said he will not require her replacement to pass a test on abortion or same-sex marriage. He offered a robust defense of Gonzales, the one potential nominee who has stirred vigorous opposition among the president's own conservative supporters.
In the wake of Bush's stern warning, delivered from his first stop on a European trip, many conservatives ratcheted down their rhetoric or went silent altogether, but others ignored the president and pressed their attack on Gonzales for not aggressively opposing abortion and affirmative action. Further fueling the debate over the potential nominee, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) offered qualified words of support for Gonzales.
The continued focus on the attorney general underscored how the selection process has swiftly evolved into a Gonzales-or-someone-else choice. Whether Bush views it that way or not, senators and interest groups on both sides have concentrated their attention on Gonzales's record and perceived views on the theory that the president's friend and confidant has emerged as the front-runner. These lawmakers and groups are publicly discussing other possible candidates, almost all federal appellate judges, almost as if they were indistinguishable and relevant mainly as the alternative to Gonzales.
Bush seemed aggravated by the attacks on his friend, who followed him from Texas to Washington and served as White House counsel before taking over the Justice Department in February. "All of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire," Bush told reporters at a news conference with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "I don't like it at all."
Bush offered no clues to his thinking about various candidates but promised to probe the character, not the legal rulings, of prospective justices during interviews at the White House after he returns at the end of the week. Senators, he added, should ignore the intense pressure coming from partisan groups, which plan to spend an unprecedented $100 million to influence the choice.
"I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process and that the senators don't listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for not only . . . what they may think is right but also for their own fundraising capabilities," Bush said.
In hopes of bolstering his own lobbying campaign, Bush tapped former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) to escort the eventual nominee around the Senate. Thompson, who retired from public office two years ago to return to his acting career and now plays a district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order," will serve much as Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) did during the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991.
"It's a smart thing to do because the people in the White House can't spend all their time on this" and Thompson is "extremely well regarded," said C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel to Bush's father and founded the Committee for Justice to support the current president's nominees.
Bush got support from an unexpected quarter Wednesday when Reid, the Senate's top Democrat, spoke out favorably about Gonzales and criticized "the far right" for attacking him while the president is overseas. "Alberto Gonzales is qualified," Reid told reporters in Las Vegas. "He's attorney general of the United States and a former Texas judge. But having said that he's qualified, I don't know if he'd have an easy way through."
The positive assessment contrasted with the broader Democratic critique of Gonzales for his role in drafting detention policies that critics say led to torture of suspected terrorists and other prisoners. Reid joined most Senate Democrats in voting against Gonzales's confirmation as attorney general in February. Reid stirred criticism from within his own party earlier this year for suggesting that he would vote to confirm Justice Antonin Scalia if he were nominated for chief justice.
Bush's entreaty to conservatives to stop assailing Gonzales was reinforced by White House allies making conference calls emphasizing that such internal division only helps the opposition. "There's a sense that the left is going to create dissension among the right, and the media loves that story . . . waiting for the president to tell the wackos to stuff it," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice. "But the president and his staff have their eye on the horizon" and will not be drawn in, he said.
If anything, some people close to Bush said, the attacks on Gonzales might push Bush closer to choosing him. Some conservatives came to that conclusion in deciding to mute their public comments. "I don't think a lot of these attacks are helpful, and they might backfire," said one conservative activist who opposes Gonzales.
But not all agreed. Manuel A. Miranda, former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), forwarded an e-mail message to journalists Wednesday outlining reported Gonzales remarks that called into question his position on Roe v. Wade, the decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion. In further comments distributed by the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, Miranda expanded on his criticism.
"It's not that we have anything personal against Alberto Gonzales, but he has said some things that are very discomforting," Miranda said. Free Congress paraphrased Miranda as saying that Gonzales's comments on various cases "show that he is not a movement conservative" and adding: "We don't know what he really thinks on many, many issues. That is something that conservatives on this nomination cannot tolerate."
Miranda left his Senate post last year after an investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms found that he and another GOP staffer had systematically downloaded and leaked thousands of Democratic files dealing with judicial nominations. Miranda denied any illegal actions.
The president's comments about the Supreme Court came during a brief news conference with reporters, his only scheduled public appearance during this international trip. Bush said he is spending much of his time reviewing the backgrounds of possible nominees and talking to staff about the candidates' pros and cons. He plans to meet with senators early next week before interviewing the candidates.
"I will let my legal experts deal with the ramifications of legal opinions," Bush said. "I will try to assess their character, their interests." While Bush initially considered announcing his pick next week, aides said there is talk of delaying the decision to protect the nominee from prolonged attacks from the left or right. Either way, Bush wants the new justice approved by early October.
Bush said the criteria for the job are simple. "I'll pick people who, one, can do the job, people who are honest, people who are bright, and people who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not use the bench to legislate from." Bush was mum on who meets such criteria.
Baker reported from Washington.